(CBS) — Texas’ near-total abortion ban amid the coronavirus pandemic may soon be in front of the United States Supreme Court.
On Saturday afternoon, the coalition of abortion rights groups challenging the state’s suspension of abortion services filed for an emergency stay, requesting that the Supreme Court block a federal appeals court’s decision to uphold most of the ban. For nearly three weeks, the vast majority of abortion services have been unavailable in Texas, the first time a state has been without legal abortion access since 1973, when the procedure was legalized by Roe v. Wade.
The groups – Planned Parenthood, the Center for Reproductive Rights and the Lawyering Project – are requesting that the nation’s highest court reinstate a temporary restraining order granted on Thursday that allows medication abortion to resume, as well as surgical procedures for patients who would be outside the legal gestational limit by the time the ban is set to expire. On Friday, a federal appeals court reversed part of that decision, demanding that medication abortions once again be halted.
In the 374-page filing, lawyers representing Texas’ abortion providers said the Supreme Court’s intervention was “urgently needed.”
“Delaying abortions by weeks does nothing to further the State’s interest in combatting COVID-19, and indeed runs directly contrary to that interest: individuals will require more health care – even in the short term – if they remain pregnant than if they have a desired abortion, and some will engage in risky, out-of-state travel in an attempt to access earlier abortion services, thus increasing contagion risks in the midst of a pandemic,” attorneys wrote in the filing.
Clinics in New Mexico, Louisiana, Colorado and even Illinois have reported a jump in patients from Texas in the past few weeks. One such patient, who asked that her real name not be used, told CBS News she plans to drive to New Mexico to receive the procedure.
“People may say, ‘Shame on you for traveling and putting other people’s lives at risk.’ But it’s also shame on you for making me do this or, you know, putting me in this position,” the patient, who is 15-weeks pregnant, told CBS News in an interview on Monday.
Because of the virus, the 20-year-old patient lost her job as a cocktail waitress and said she wasn’t ready – mentally or financially -to be a mother.
“This is an extraordinarily difficult time, but this is an easy case. Texas is blatantly abusing its emergency power to obliterate Roe v. Wade,” said Nancy Northup, the president and chief executive officer of the Center for Reproductive Rights, in a statement to CBS News on Saturday. “This tactic of using bogus health and safety justifications to close clinics is nothing new… These thinly veiled attempts to end abortion must stop.”
Saturday’s filing is the latest in what’s become a legal ping-pong match between Texas and abortion rights advocates over whether the state has extraordinary power during an emergency to curtail some constitutional rights, like access to abortion.
On March 23, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued guidance that abortion services would be included in the Governor’s suspension of “non-essential” medical procedures amid the coronavirus pandemic. The order included all pregnancy termination “not medically necessary to preserve the life or health” of the patient. Doctors who violate the order face “penalties of up to $1,000 or 180 days of jail time.
Texas is among five states facing legal battles over restricting abortion access during the pandemic, and the one furthest along in the judicial process. In a sweep of legal filings, a coalition of abortion rights groups challenged similar bans in Alabama, Iowa, Ohio and Oklahoma. So far, judges have ordered bans to be at least partially lifted everywhere but Texas.